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Pride month special: In conversation with Sumangali, classical dancer and activist who dreams of and is working towards a better world, one where acceptance is universal.

By Rebecca Edwin

Meet Sumangali Balakrishnan, a classical dancer, and activist who is also part of the team at The Bohemian House, a creative and co-working space in Bangalore. She dreams of and is working towards a better world, one where acceptance is universal.

How do you identify?
I’m a transgender woman. I was born a boy and have transitioned into a woman.

Tell us about yourself and your journey.
I was born in Andhra Pradesh, and throughout my childhood, I knew that even though my outer self was a boy, my inner self was a girl, my feelings were that of a girl. I loved wearing make-up and draping a sari in front of the mirror, drawing a rangoli and helping my mom in the kitchen. I had so many characteristics that would commonly be described as ‘feminine’.

I finished my SSLC and PUC as a boy, and I didn’t know anything about gender or the possibility of changing one’s gender. All I knew was that there was a disconnect between the gender assigned to me at birth and my gender identity. I had a deep urge to wear a sari and change how I looked, I was always looking for opportunities to express myself – the real me. But I did not know how people would react if I did.

It was only after moving to Bangalore to do my Diploma in Computer Science that I met others like me. I found my community, they supported me, they helped me find the strength to set myself free. I transitioned. I could wear a sari. And I was happy. After so many years, I finally became a woman. As a boy, I was handsome. As a girl, I am beautiful.

Now I am an activist and a feminist, I fight for LGBTQ+ rights.

How has your family reacted? 
My people – those in my village – have not seen many people who are trans, so they are unaware of what it is like, and still don’t know that I have transitioned. Most of my extended family are loving, but sometimes I do face discrimination. As for my family, my dad passed away when I was young and my mother is so loving. When I used to dress up in a sari, she would always tell me I looked pretty. It was the neighbors who would question her about it. Society feeds discrimination.

At first, I too did not know why I was this way. I met some doctors who advised me that this was a rare condition, a mental or a hormone imbalance. They said you can see it in past generations, but there is nobody from my family background who’s been like this. Now I want to tell them, this is not like diabetes! It’s not an illness. And it’s not hereditary.

After I became myself, my family accepted it, accepted me. They live with me in Bangalore and have been for the last six years. That is a great thing. I achieved that. When they first came here they saw me in a sari, and my mom was a little shocked, but we sat down and I explained things to her, and some people from my community spoke to her as well. They explained that this is not a sudden thing, it’s a gradual change over time. She understood, and she accepted.

Tell us about the communities you have chosen to be a part of.
My trans people are my community, my family. We share everything with one another, the bad and the good. Struggles, pain, disappointment. Safety, protection, freedom. 

My mentor’s name is Ashamma Guru. She’s such a kind person and has supported me so much. I am the Chela of Ashamma Guru, and I have 4 other Chelas, who I try to help and grow in their own space. They do not live with me, but it’s always good to have support within the community.

We have a hijra culture system. When you go to the group for the first time, you have to register for it, and then they take care of everything. Chela, Guru, Nani, Dadi, Para Dadi… we call each one different names. It’s a different culture.

When did you make the choice to transition?
There was no particular age. It is a need I was born with, and it has grown with me since childhood, it has stayed with me. Some people choose to transition, some do not. I am a woman, but I do not need anatomy to back it up. I’m happy. I don’t need to have kids. I have dignity. I am a woman. But I’m a little man too.

What do you think is society’s biggest misconception about the trans community?
Society – we can’t hide from it. Society’s discriminations are not a recent thing, they have been passed on through the generations. Ideas that we are bad people who should not be mingled with. Everyone does bad things or makes mistakes, but when the person is trans or queer – they are judged that much more.

When I was looking for a job, in spite of being qualified no one was ready to hire me. When I would go for an interview, they would say, “We will get back to you”. But I wouldn’t hear from them and then would hear from a third person about how they can’t “entertain such people”.

Society has to change. We are also a part of society. We deserve respect, we are human like everyone else. People need to learn to be inclusive. And most importantly, we need acceptance in families first.

Where do you feel safe, with the freedom to be yourself?
Being a trans woman is worse than being a woman. I feel the safest with my community, and with my family. I also feel safe where I work – The Bohemian House. And before, when I worked with my community’s NGOs – I felt safe there.

When you come out of these spaces, you don’t know what you will face. Sexual abuse, discrimination, comments, insults. These are things you face every day.

Tell us more about your work, and the nature of your activism and advocacy.
I work with the team at The Bohemian House, a co-working and creative space in Bangalore. My workspace has no gender discrimination, and I have been included in every way throughout my journey. I have worked there for a year now. 

My job helps me improve myself and become a better person. I’ve also grown more confident. My confidence is what I am. My confidence is how I transitioned from Balakrishna to Sumangali.

I conduct gender sensitization programs with PeriFerry, an NGO that works towards getting employment for members of the LGBTQ+ community. I got my job through them as well. And I also do classical dance, something I feel proud of. I hope I can become a great classical dancer.

But my biggest dream is to open up an LGBTQ+ adda – a safe space where my people can get help, be given opportunities, improve their skills and most importantly stand on their own and live a life of dignity. That is my ultimate goal. I will do it one day.

What would be your advice to young people or those who haven’t been able to come out just yet?
First, I would say, get an education. Study well, or no one will give you a job.

Second, help others. Be open about gender and open about yourself. We can’t hide ourselves. We have to open up. If I open up myself then it helps others too.

Third, be a good person. It takes time for society to change, but you should be good. One day everyone will accept everyone. We should wait for that. One day it will come.

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